May 2022 - Sustainability Champion of The Month: Breanna Van Otterloo

Breanna Van Otterloo, Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist, is our May Sustainability Champion. She has been involved in many initiatives to make our campus more sustainable. Read our interview with Breanna to learn more.

May 09, 2022


  1. Tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and how your path led to where you are today.

I grew up in southern California, moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC, and never left, although it was hardly love at first sight. Having come from the zeitgeist of suburbia, where the streets were lined with chain restaurants and strip malls, life in Santa Cruz was a major adjustment for me - I recall having a conversation with my father crying that I was unsure if I would survive because there was only one “real” restaurant (Chili’s) and a single “store-brand store” (Safeway) to replace the intersections of Ralphs/Albertsons/Vons I had grown up with, no to mention their requisite Starbucks.headshot-breanna-320x400px.jpgLooking back on that day, I am so glad I stayed with the discomfort of the shift; the beauty and community of Santa Cruz eventually won me over and shaped who I am today. Leaving the familiar allowed me to find something so much better. 

My path through education started as a psychology major, which introduced me to the concept of psychoneuroimmunology. Fascinated with the interaction of body and mind, and the implications on overall health, I built my own Holistic Health major, however, the economic crisis of 2008 led to the cancellation of most of the classes I needed to complete this degree. I skated out in 2011 with a BS in Neuroscience and Behavior, and by that point was so entrenched in my life here in Santa Cruz that I could not leave - imagine, having nowhere to get coffee but Starbucks and relying on chain restaurants for “food” without a decent Farmers’ Market in sight. I had worked in the Dining Halls on campus as a student, then moved on to New Leaf where I worked a few years after graduation. Fast forward through a brief stint in biotechnology, certification as a Holistic Nutrition Consultant, kitchen management at the Homeless Services Center, and some fun times at a winery, I found myself looking for something more fulfilling. A chance encounter while surfing one day reconnected me with a former supervisor, now Executive Director of Dining Services Bill Prime, who encouraged me to apply to the open position of Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist at UCSC. I was hired in early 2019 and have been growing the position ever since.

  1. What does Sustainability mean to you?

For me, Sustainability is about so much more than what your food is packaged in or the carbon footprint of your primary mode of transportation. While it is important to be aware of these things and to make informed, conscientious decisions, focusing on products and materials reduces people to nothing more than consumers and denies the fundamental importance of community. Sustainability is as much about preserving the relationships and society around us as it is about preserving the land on which we all try to thrive. I believe it is commitment to living your life in such a way that you can continue doing so day after day with integrity and joy.

  1. Tell us about your work in Dining Services: what is unique about it and what experiences you have had there that are meaningful to you?

My position in Dining Services is very unique and encompasses a myriad of responsibilities. As the first-ever Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist, I have the privilege (and oftentimes challenge) of defining what exactly the role is while making it my own, which is absolutely perfect for someone like me. My main focus is ensuring that all students are able to safely enjoy food in the dining halls, which I tackle in a number of ways. I participate in monthly health inspections with the campus EH&S department to make sure that our kitchens are meeting general health and safety standards, providing corrective follow-up to the Units as needed; I also work with the Executive Chef to design menus that are more inclusive for students with a variety of food allergies and dietary restrictions. The later part of this is a constant challenge to my creativity, but also what I enjoy most in my job. I gather feedback from students in one-on-one meetings and try to develop ways to serve the most students without overburdening production, while still ensuring that food is flavorful and enjoyable. It takes a lot of research and discussion, but the end result is worth it.

  1. As the Food Safety and Nutrition Specialist, can you tell us about your role, including co-mentoring the sustainability intern in dining?

One piece of my role that is not captured in my already cumbersome title is the work I do to support campus sustainability initiatives. In my short time here, I have learned so much about these initiatives and their challenges by working with the Real Food Challenge team, as well as the system-wide Sustainable Food Services Working Group. A lot of the real work comes down to meeting with the groups that receive our various waste streams, then working with manufacturers and suppliers to find products that fit everyone’s goals and needs. This quarter, I have also had the pleasure of co-mentoring our Sustainability Intern through the working with Natalia Valdes Heredia has taken me back to my early days as a student (back when I was just learning there was more to the world than chain restaurants) and reminded me how important it is to to engage with students in order to be successful in our campus-wide waste goals. She has been instrumental in education and outreach, both internally and with her peers, and it has been inspiring to watch her take on new projects and support her however I can.

  1. You have been instrumental in implementing compostable packaging, reusable containers in the dining halls, and collaborating with many sustainable initiatives on campus, such as Fair Trade as of late. Can you share some of the challenges and successes? 

Bringing reusables to campus has been an important project to me since I was first hired, though not without its many challenges. While there were some expected hurdles, such as initial cost, the biggest challenge was COVID. I had been working with the Sustainability Programs Manager at the time, Kristen Lee, researching a number of different companies and systems, but the health and safety concerns that arose in early 2020 put the sustainability goals we were working toward on the back burner. This shifted the focus to identifying appropriate compostable packing that could be used whenever possible, and of course the new challenge became supply lines and product availability. As we learned more about the virus and life returned to something more like normal, I was able to work with EH&S to ensure that we would safely be able to not just reinstate, but to expand our EcoBox program as to-go meals have become more popular. Thanks to recent legislation passed by the City, we have also been able to restart the BYOC programs at on-campus retailers. Customers may now bring their own clean cups to any cafe or coffee cart and receive a discount on their drink (in addition to waiving the disposable cup fee).

In a totally separate and much more enjoyable vein, I have recently been working with students on the Fair Trade team to identify options for chocolate bars to be sold on campus. It has been really great to watch these students take this project on and to provide them guidance and support. And to be sure, I am looking forward to the fruits of their labors - more chocolate please!

  1. Is there anything else about the work you do that you would like to share?

Because there are so many, many facets to my role, every day is different and brings new opportunities. I really value this aspect of my job as it allows me to grow my own personal creativity. My work at UCSC extends far beyond Dining Services and I have made so many valuable connections, both on campus and in our broader community. I am grateful for every experience and learning opportunity that has come my way as a result of being part of this team. 

  1. Lastly, what do you do for fun outside of work?

I love cooking - for nourishment, for stress-relief, for friends - I find the act of cooking therapeutic and use it as acreative outlet.breannahiking260px.jpg I am also an avid road biker and try to avoid being in the car at all costs; I can’t stand traffic or parking, particularly in Santa Cruz. More than just utility, I also love taking my bike on long trips, up to Pescadero or down to Monterey. Beyond biking, I love anything that gets your body moving, particularly outdoors. Backpacking, hiking, surfing, running, and yoga are probably my top activities. But before you get the impression that it’s all health-nut junk for me, I also consider myself a brunch aficionado. Whether I’m putting one on or meeting friends out for a Sunday Funday, I think a frequent good brunch is essential to an enjoyable life.